Before Joyce Kaplan died in 2012, she wrote a set of specific instructions for her daughter, Jennie Fahn, and reminded her daily of exactly where they were hidden in a kitchen cabinet.
“Under the Jello Mold” became the title of Fahn’s poignant, funny, solo show about her mother, which she is performing Sundays at the Pico Playhouse Theatre through Aug. 26.
Playing her mother, herself and every supporting character, Fahn re-enacts stories through which Joyce’s colorful personality emerges. These include incidents involving a stolen purse, a Thanksgiving dinner argument, an emotional cemetery visit and the revelation of a family secret.
A former dancer with a penchant for wigs and high-heeled mules, Joyce was diminutive but larger than life — nagging, overcritical, inappropriate and often crude, although she still comes across onstage as lovable. It’s apparent in the show that Fahn misses her mother terribly.
“Sometimes, as I’m rehearsing the lines, I burst into tears,” Fahn said after a preview performance. “It’s emotional, but actually it’s very joyful for me. I feel like I’m paying tribute to her every time I do it. It’s cathartic. I love telling this story and sharing her with people.”
Inevitably, that works both ways. “After the show, people end up staying and telling me stories about their moms,” she said. “They want to have that conversation. That’s my favorite part and kind of why I did the show. It opens the door and gives people permission to talk about [death], to laugh and to cry.”
“Everyone has a Jello story. It doesn’t mean it’s about Jello. Everyone has a family secret or a crazy relative.” — Jennie Fahn
Fahn’s previous solo work, “You Mutha,” was also about mothers and included Joyce and herself as characters. But in the decade between writing that show and Joyce’s death, “there were a lot more stories to be culled about her life and death,” Fahn said. “I had them in my head and finally decided to put them down on paper.”
“Under the Jello Mold” premiered in Los Angeles at the Fringe Festival in June 2017 and won three awards, including Best Solo Performance. Fahn recently performed it in Washington, D.C., at an alumni reunion from the theater department at Georgetown University, her alma mater. She hopes to take it on tour, have a run in New York and see a TV series version in the works “that goes deeper. I’d love for a wider audience to see it,” she said. She also is writing a movie script and another solo show focusing on her mother and brother.
Fahn, 51, grew up in a Conservative Jewish home in Merrick, on New York’s Long Island. “We weren’t super religious but we belonged to a temple and we were very involved there,” she said. She studied for her bat mitzvah but didn’t have one, in protest. “I thought all the bat mitzvahs were way too over the top and I wasn’t into that whole scene,” she explained.
Performing was her childhood dream, but she studied marketing at Georgetown, intending to go into advertising. But during her senior year she acted in plays and reversed that decision. She worked at a children’s theater for a year and a half and then booked a Northeast tour of “Fiddler on the Roof,” playing Tevye’s youngest daughter, Bielke, and Grandma Tzeitel.
Fahn moved west in 1991 with an ex-boyfriend. She met her husband, Jonathan, also an actor and New York native, in Los Angeles. They married in “a big schmaltzy wedding” on Long Island in 1993. The have two sons, Harry, a recent UC Berkeley graduate, and Sammy, a high school student.
The family belongs to Temple Isaiah, where Fahn serves on several committees, including the Gun Legislation Advocacy Committee. She’s also involved with Jewish World Watch. Although she’s not religious, “I’m very spiritual, and I want to make a difference in the world,” she said. “Social justice is very important to me, and I want to express that through theater, make an impact on people by leaving them with a positive message.”
Fahn, who has appeared in Netflix’s “One Day at a Time,” currently has a recurring role in the Showtime series “I’m Dying Up Here” as the Polish deli owner and has a role in the upcoming online comedy “Hotel du Loone.” But she’s proudest of “Under the Jello Mold” “because it has an effect on people. No matter who you are, there’s something you can relate to in the story,” she said. “Everyone has a Jello story. It doesn’t mean it’s about Jello. Everyone has a family secret or a crazy relative. There’s something for everyone in it that’s relatable.”
As for Joyce’s actual Jello mold, it’s currently in storage in Fahn’s garage, but the space is being converted into an apartment for her widowed mother-in-law. “I guess I’ll have to bring it inside now,” she said.
“Under the Jello Mold” runs Sundays from June 17-Aug. 26 at the Pico Playhouse Theatre.